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New Research Supports FDA Decision to Ban Poultry Drug

Barred from US Markets in 2015, Arsenical Drugs Remain a Health Risk for Global Consumers

Oct 31, 2016

Eating poultry treated with arsenic-based drugs can expose consumers to arsenic, according to two new studies published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. From 2013-2015 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took successive measures to remove arsenical drugs from US markets, but they remain in use internationally.

The studies’ findings provide new evidence supporting the FDA’s decision to stop the marketing and sale of arsenical drugs in the US.

“We can say with confidence that the FDA’s action on arsenicals was warranted to protect consumer health,” said Keeve Nachman, PhD, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s (CLF) Food Production & Public Health Program and an assistant professor with the Bloomberg School’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. “We hope this research will also help other governments make better decisions about these drugs.”

For nearly 70 years, US poultry producers routinely administered the arsenic-based drugs roxarsone to chicken and nitarsone to turkeys to prevent common parasitic diseases and promote growth. In 2010, as many as 88% of all US chickens were treated with roxarsone. Despite their ubiquity, a growing body of evidence has raised concerns about the use of these drugs leading to human exposures to inorganic arsenic. Previous CLF-led research linked the use of roxarsone in chicken production to increased levels of inorganic arsenic in chicken meat. Chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic has been shown to increase the risk of lung, bladder and skin cancers, and numerous other health conditions.

Citing consumer health concerns, the FDA suspended the marketing and sale of roxarsone and two other arsenic-based drugs in 2013. The FDA did not ban nitarsone until December 2015.

The new studies, led respectively by researchers at the CLF in the Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, use different approaches to examine how the use of arsenicals in poultry production can contribute to arsenic exposure. The data for the new research was collected before the FDA bans on arsenical drugs went into effect.

The first study, led by CLF researchers in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Graz, Austria, was the first of its kind to examine concentrations of specific forms of arsenic (e.g., inorganic arsenic versus other forms) in nitarsone-treated turkey meat. Turkey meat samples used in the study were purchased in 2014 from US grocery stores. Sample analysis revealed that turkey meat from producers that did not prohibit nitarsone had higher concentrations of inorganic arsenic and other forms of arsenic than samples from producers with policies barring the use of the drug.

The second study, from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and supported by the CLF, examined whether eating poultry products increased consumer arsenic exposure. To do this, researchers compared data on arsenic concentrations in urine between a group of people who had recently eaten poultry products and a group who had not eaten poultry for 24 hours. Researchers found that people who had recently eaten poultry products had higher arsenic concentrations in their urine. These findings suggest that that the use of the drugs roxarsone and nitarsone in poultry production result in consumer arsenic exposure.

Although arsenicals drugs are no longer available in the US, the FDA action does not impact their use in other countries, or their sale by US-based pharmaceutical companies internationally. For example, arsenic-based drugs are still commonly used in China. CLF researchers say UN/FAO international food safety standards should be revised to address the health risks that arsenic-based drugs pose to global consumers.

“In our increasingly-globalized food system, regulations in one country often aren’t enough,” said Nachman. “Governments need to work together to take arsenical drugs off the menu for good.”